British Diplomacy

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

British Diplomacy

Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review

IN late 2009 a former British Ambassador to Washington wrote in critical terms, in the UK press, about the current state of British diplomacy. He described an institution whose reputation, once paramount, had sunk almost to nothing, of a once great department of slate demoted, of a service of once almost legendary self-assurance suffering from loss of morale, infected by what a recent report by the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission described as 'corporate timidity'. I quote from memory but the thrust of the article was of a once indispensable asset allowed to deteriorate through neglect, indifference and lack of leadership to the point where its members are beginning to wonder whether it has any future other than as an arm of the social services. Sir Christopher Meyer has expanded his views on British diplomacy into a three-part BBC television series. The question of whether diplomacy matters or not, either in relative terms--in comparison with the diplomatic services of other states of similar size and weight--but also in absolute terms, was not broached. But it is as well to recall that by the year 2050 it's estimated that the population of the UK could top 70 million. Its people are already crucially dependent on what they can buy abroad, in competition with others, for raw materials, food, clothing and fuel. Theirs is also one of the largest expatriate populations in the world. Some 250,000 are said to emigrate each year, in addition to their addiction to travel. Their population includes second or third generation immigrants who have kin in their country of origin still, whose fate is of natural concern to them. Their numbers increase at the rate of some 350.000 new arrivals each year. The national mix is rich, diverse and a source of fruitful optimism for the future. But it means that there is almost nowhere in the world which does not have an impact on at least part of the population. And, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, and demonstrated, today's problems are global and need global solutions. So abroad matters.

Why, if Sir Christopher Meyer is even half-way correct, is British diplomacy in such a bad way? Part of the blame, he claims, must be laid at the door of the service itself, in its surrender to political correctness and modern management theory, introspection and image consciousness. But what of its raison d'etre? We live in a digitalised world of multimedia, of mass travel. Events hit our screens almost as soon as they happen. They are exhaustively analysed and commented upon. The ability of ordinary man to engage, to project himself, acting in conceit with like-minded people across the globe, provides him with not only an outlet for his opinion but also a lever. Using it he can persuade reluctant governments to act or do things differently or better. He can force the cancellation of stages on the route of the Olympic torch and demonstrate in support of injustice everywhere. The Russian invasion of Chechnya and the Israeli of Gaza had tele-audiences of millions. The protests following the 2009 Iranian Presidential elections took place, not just on the streets of Teheran, but in living rooms and on i-phones everywhere. Pirates and terrorists have their own web sites. Man is more confident than ever about managing his own life while at the same time more doubtful about its destiny. Sports celebrities and pop stars are today's ambassadors, their fingers closer to the pulse of life than those of diplomats, especially in those high-profile issues that count like hosting the 2018 Football World Cup. No one who has watched David Beckham in action, lobbying in South Africa, could have failed to have been disarmed by his modesty and pleasantness. Good looking, approachable, at ease with himself and the world, very good at what he does best and incidentally very rich, he was the popular image of the diplomat par excellence.

Yet there is a paradox at work here. For 'Motorway Man', the archetypal swing voter for the 2010 British general election, the poles of existence are home and family, its axis the motorway, the world beyond of almost no interest. …

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